Family Road Trip to Yosemite
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Earlier this year (February to be exact) my family and I drove to central California from Los Angeles to visit Yosemite National Park. Ideally I would have already shared this with you already since it is in fact June; however, my twins have had other plans for me, like playing with blocks! I’m actually glad I’m sharing it with you now though as it is just in time for summer family road trips and summer is the most popular time to visit this wonderland.
Keep reading for what we did, where we stayed, and some things we are going to do differently next time!
Like I mentioned, we visited Yosemite back in February. Upon leaving I already wanted to book my next trip to go again and I can tell you that I still feel that way four months later. Yosemite National Park is breathtakingly beautiful and completely worth the trip. I’ve been to the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and places of that caliber, but Yosemite is truly something else. Prior to visiting, my favorite California park was Point Lobos Natural Reserve in Monterey, but Yosemite rivals it. It truly isn’t fair of me to compare them because they offer different features and are vastly different sizes…let’s just say as of right now they are my two favorite parks in the state!
A couple things to keep in mind about our itinerary:
We visited in February. This is kind of off season. I say kind of because there is an attraction that occurs in middle - late February to brings a lot of traffic. Because of the time we went, we didn’t need any special permits or anything to enter. Peak season is between Memorial Day and Labor Day, so most of the 1.5M visitors the park receives each year are in June, July, and August.
We stayed in Bass Lake. We did not stay in the actual park.
Road Closures dictated our travel. It isn’t unusual for roads to be closed in the off season as they do repairs or are closed off for safety. Hetch Hetchy road was actually closed due to a fire so this was not an area we could visit. Additionally, it is only open during the day in the off-season. Tioga Pass is closed entirely November - May and it is the only road that runs east to west through the park. If you choose to stay on or enter from the east side of the park, the only option is to go around the mountains, nearly tripling the time it would take to explore.
HOW LONG DID WE STAY IN YOSEMITE:
3 days, 2 nights
We arrived on a Sunday and left on a Tuesday. We considered tacking on another night once we got there, but we had to get back home because we had construction starting and didn’t want to delay it. There’s enough to do and see to stay longer than 1 full day and I think it is best if you have at least 2 full days.
WHERE DID WE STAY IN YOSEMITE:
Bass Lake, California
To be clear we stayed near Yosemite, but not in it. We stayed in this adorable cabin in Bass Lake. It’s on AirBnB as the Cookiebutter Cabin. If you’re going with a larger group they actually have another cabin right by the one we stayed in. We were doing a little Valentine’s Day weekend getaway and it was perfect! The lodging was so cute, but it is very much a cabin, meaning not a lot of insulation and more basic in features; however, it had everything we needed, plus a ton of character. It is not childproofed, but at the time we only had 4 month olds and they weren’t crawling. We were also gone a lot of the time, so it wasn’t a place we did much at except eat and sleep.
We considered staying in Mammoth because it is another place in California that I haven’t been yet, but due to road closures we didn’t choose this route. It was a little bit further of a drive to Mammoth and visiting Yosemite would have been a no-go since Tioga Pass was closed and it is the only way to enter Yosemite directly from Mammoth.
In the end I was fine with going with Bass Lake instead because is said to be like a mini Tahoe. I liked it, but the lake was pretty much dry, I think because of a dam closure and it being the off season? I’d love to go back when the lake is full, otherwise the weather and location were awesome. Bass Lake itself is about 16 miles / 24 minutes from the nearest Yosemite entrance on a map, but keep in mind that only gets you the entrance. Yosemite is HUGE (over 700K acres) and it will likely take you longer to get where you’re going, especially if there is a line to enter. Due to where we wanted to go in the park, it actually took us over an hour from our cabin. It was well worth it, just wanted to mention that.
HOW DID WE GET TO YOSEMITE:
The fastest way from LA ;)
We drove from Los Angeles to Bass Lake. We took the 405 to the 5 to 99 to 41 which is pretty much the fastest and only way to get there. Since we had our 4 month old twins and our Great Dane, we stopped every couple hours or so. It’s not an amazing drive like going up the PCH but there are a lot of farm land and small towns and national forests detours on the route (Sequoia, Inyo, and Stanislaus). It is right under 5 hours without traffic, but of course we took a bit longer since we stopped frequently.
WHAT WE DID IN YOSEMITE:
Hike The Way of the Mono in Bass Lake
Drive around Yosemite National Park, see Firefall at Horsetail Fall
This was a very last minute trip and was moreso about going to the cabin and waking up in a new place than having something super planned out. We cooked and ate all our meals in the cabin and didn’t eat out. I usually like to eat something in the area, but to be honest there’s not a ton of restaurants. We did stop at Hi Top Coffee in Fresno on the way back, but other than that, we ate food that we packed and stopped at a quick chain restaurant when we were in a pinch. To be clear, this trip is about nature and that is pretty much all we did, which of course is the reason to go to Yosemite in the first place. I just wanted to mention this if you are used to my other travel guides.
We arrived Sunday evening and woke up Monday morning which was Valentine’s Day. We made breakfast and opened gifts, then got ready for the day. After that we walked from our cabin to do The Way of the Mono hike in Bass Lake which is great for beginners / when you are carrying two babies. It would have been prettier if the lake had been full, but it was still a great view and a fun experience. I liked the history plaques as well. One of the reasons we booked the cabin that we did was because of its proximity to this and the nature around it!
We went back to our cabin and had lunch, then decided to look up Yosemite. Did I mention his was a very last minute trip? Hah! We noticed that it was an hourish to get there, but we had come all this way and strapped the babies in the car and said let’s do it. As I mentioned earlier, we did try to book an extra night / it was available, but decided against it due to other commitments. On our drive to Yosemite I looked up where to go and what to see. To my surprise, we were there at the exact time that Firefall occurs… WHAT ARE THE ODDS?! Firefall is a natural phenomenon that only occurs mid - late February. There has to be perfect sun alignment, enough water which only happens when there is enough snow and warmth to melt the snow, and clear skies as a cloud can block the snow from melting. So on a clear day in February, around sunset, at just the right location and time, it appears that fire is rolling down the mountain(!!) There used to be people who would literally send fire down the mountain, but they stopped, because it was dangerous. Soon after they paused the actual act of firefall, someone found a spot where it appeared to do so without the danger and thus people came to witness the illusion.
We were racing against time / daylight, but were able to make it to Horsetail Fall (where Firefall occurs, on the eastern side of El Capitan) at the exact right time. People literally camp out all day to get a good parking spot / place to take photos. Rangers won’t let you stop your car since you will block traffic, but we drove through at the exact perfect time and were able to witness the phenomenon. It was such a cool moment! After that we drove to another spot, hopped out and took pictures. A photographer who was nearby pointed out some free solo climbers on El Capitan who had set up their “camp” for the evening which was insane to see. It sounds like we didn’t do a lot, but you can actually see a lot just from the drive into the park. We pulled over at certain places and Nick and I took turns getting out to see falls and such from a closer vantage point as we were in a hurry to make the most of the daylight and didn’t want to unpack the babies each time. We did not do any hikes since it was dusk, but I do feel like we got to see a lot, especially for not really getting out of the car. For example, you can see Yosemite Falls from the driver’s seat. It’s a great place to visit even if you only have time to drive, just to be able to witness the wonder.
All in all, we loved our quick trip to Yosemite and are looking forward to going back soon. I really want to go in the summer months, but I may try to book something for September. This is after busy season, but before winter closures. Note that Yosemite National Park recently issued a statement saying that in addition to your park pass, you’ll need a special reservation to get into Yosemite National Park starting May 20 - September 30 2022. By going in February, we didn’t need a special park pass or entry fee, though we didn’t camp, just visited. I’m unsure about campsite regulations. Additionally, the park started selling 70% of reservation slots March 23, 2022 for those who want to enter the park between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m. daily, but still offer reservations. Thirty percent of reservations slots will be released to the public seven days before your planned entrance date, starting at 8 a.m. PST. You can get a pass at www.recreation.gov. If you don’t have a pass or can’t procure one, you can drive through between the hours of 4:01 pm and 5:59 am. It seems that reservations for lodging are an exclusion to this, as well as some other technicalities. Yosemite.org has a lot of information for those planning a trip.
Tips for your trip to Yosemite:
Choose and map exact spots you’d like to visit in the park to where you’re staying so you know the actual time. Maybe this is common sense but it wasn’t to me! It’s huge and it will be good to know approximate travel times.
Choose which of the 5 entrances to Yosemite you will enter on. Know which one you’re closest to / which sights are the near the ones you want to see. There are 4 on the west side and 1 on the east side.
South Entrance: This is how we came in and is the fastest entrance coming from LA or San Diego. It takes you from Fresno on highway 41 through Oakhurst and Fish Camp. It has an amazing tunnel, so wait for that first look into the park, because it is gorgeous! It doesn’t have an official name other than the south entrance, but I deem this the tunnel entrance. Hah!
Far North Entrance: This is the least populated entrance as it is the northern most. It is called the Hetch Hetchy Entrance since you take that road from Highway 120 / Evergreen Road. Note that it is only open in daylight hours during the winter (November - May).
North Entrance: This is known as the Big Oak Flat Entrance and like the Hetch Hetchy Entrance, you access it from Groveland / Highway 120. This is one one of the best options when coming from the Bay Area.
West Entrance: This is called the Arch Rock Entrance and is the most popular entrance as it is known for its, well, arched rocks. It takes you from Mariposa on highway 140. This is the other best option when visiting from the Bay Area.
East Entrance: There is only one entrance on this side and it is called the Tioga Pass Entrance. It takes you from Lee Vining on highway 395 through Tioga Road which connects to highway 120. It is a great entrance if you are coming from Mammoth, Lake Tahoe, Las or Vegas. This side of the park is the most remote and is only open May - November.
Tips for traveling with your family to Yosemite:
You don’t need a lot - seriously maybe remove an outfit or so, especially if you have access to a washer and dryer. Don’t forget sunscreen, bug spray, and a hat! Good layers are important too.
Bring your own water and food - There are some stores, but you’re better off bringing what you can.
Seek out stops and other landmarks on the drive in / out - it is a great trip for learning!
Thoughts for my next trip to Yosemite:
I want to visit during the summer - both Yosemite and Bass Lake.
I want to be able to drive on Hetch Hetchy road and Tioga Road.
I want to stay in the park versus outside of the park.
I want to hike or at least walk around more versus drive.
I want to stay at least 3 nights versus 2.
I want to visit Half Dome.
I want to drive through the other entrances just to experience them.
I want to see a bear ;)
Have a great trip to Yosemite! You’re going to LOVE it and make such great memories. Let me know if you have any questions I can help with. Happy to do so! If you have a favorite stop or spot that I missed, please let me know so I can visit on my next trip. Happy trails!
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